An hour after meeting with her personnel leaders, Norn finally saw with her own eyes the gravestone-like block of metal that was Ajillo substation. Jutting out from the grey dirt, bedecked in dead, dying and decaying ships docked to various repair bays like bleached skulls left as tribute. It was a somber giant, a monument to modernity amid a patch of wilderness that had been left to languish, its potential untapped, rotting as much as the ships.
“All of this country is an absolute mess. It beggars belief.” Norn said, thinking out loud.
Outside of the vast, rich underwater plains of the Yucatan Gulf, the majority of Sverland was deep, rocky territory on the edge of various collapsed island landforms that gave the undersea geography a rising and falling, complicated geometry. Any flats that could be found between the rolling “hills” and jagged, rocky gorges and mounts, likely had a station or a substation dropped onto it. The rest of the land was for ships to glide over and around, too difficult to build on with the effort the Empire at large wanted to spare for its southern colony — which was almost none.
Northeast of Serrano, one of these substations was Ajillo, a stout “newtype-utility pillar” set into what looked like a sandy crater 700 meters below the surface. Along the sides of the station pillar’s trunk were several protruding “wet” repair bays which were crammed full of docked ships of various classes, anchored in their twos and threes save for a single, newer Cruiser, by itself. Men in pressure suits and unarmed labor Divers buzzed around the hulks of metal in their dozens. They were worked on in the open ocean, with pressurizing cages around any sensitive areas.
Ajillo substation had been a site of restless activity the past few weeks.
Since the border fleet’s failed expedition to the Union, its repair bays were filled with the detritus of a neglected fleet on the underdeveloped border to the rest of the former colonies. Norn knew of Gottwald’s failed expedition and surmised from the sight of the pillar that conditions were deteriorating. Work for military personnel was guaranteed, so the men likely continued to be paid, in food and lodging and partial wages, to continue working on their ships. But there was a clear state of disrepair to everything Norn could see docked into a wet repair bay.
Military materials would be at a premium, with no ready to source.
Sverland was perhaps the most dependent territory in the Empire. And this lack of self-sufficiency also made it a black sheep. Many of the other territories had the strength and territorial agency to form the variety of breakaway governments now vying for supremacy. But the Empire had always had a purely extractive relationship to Sverland. Every mark spent on Sverland was one mark less of its mineral, agricultural and industrial output in profit. In a sense, Sverland was having to make up for the loss of the Union in extracting as much as possible to feed the growing, gluttonous Imperial nation with little investment. It was essentially paying reparations to Palatine.
Konstantin’s oppressive authority was the only reason Sverland had any Imbrian identity.
Now the dependent Sverland state was fully abandoned, since, at the present, the “central government” that would have been responsible for installations like Ajillo was de-facto disbanded. Erich and the Fuellers and whatever parts of the Imperial administration had not yet defected to another side, all continued to administer the shell of this government wherever they felt safe doing so. But it was fully functional only in the Palatinate, where Erich’s mighty fleet guaranteed its existence. Rhinea, Bosporus, Buren, Solsea and Veka had all established their own nations. And the Royal Alliance had rooted in the productive half of Sverland like a cancer, stealing away the Yucatan.
“All of this is the result of Konstantin’s ego,”Norn said. Her lips curled into a tiny grin.
“It’s a depressing sight, but should you really be openly criticizing the late Emperor?”
“Hah! I have more than earned the right to. More than anyone in the damn world.”
“I suppose so. But then again, a powerful woman like you is partially responsible too.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“I suppose from your point of view, you accomplished everything you wanted.”
At her side, Adelheid was dressed in proper dress uniform for the visit to Ajillo. Rather than the grey coat of the Navy, she wore instead a flattering silver tunic with gold embroidery and a tall collar with her fleet insignia, over a white dress shirt with a red tie. Her hair was arranged in a slightly messy bun with a gleaming silver hairclip, and her rosy, done-up cheeks and red lips were particularly tantalizing. Beneath her clothes she wore a bodystocking that was translucent up top and black along her legs, a perfect complement to her modest knee-length skirt and heels.
Norn herself was also outfitted more impressively than normal for the occasion.
While she hated closed layers of clothing, and particularly bodysuits, and so usually wore an open coat and a camisole for comfort, she knew the situation demanded propriety. Norn wore to Ajillo a version of the blue and green Fueller coat that was tighter fitting and closed with several gold buttons. A gold braid connected the right shoulder to the left breast, and she wore a half-cape adorned with the intricate semiconductor emblem of the Fuellers. Black trousers and boots completed the outfit, while her hair was still a simple ponytail, and her makeup fairly minimal.
Adelheid had teased her upon seeing her in the Fueller attire. “Not going to wear the hat?”
Normally the Fueller family regalia included a sort of flat mitre hat that Norn hated.
It could be substituted for a pickelhaube, another object that made Norn want to vomit.
As the official head of the ruling Fueller family, Norn could have also played a cruel joke on the men at Ajillo by wearing the Imperial crown. After all, Konstantin had left instructions for Norn to lead the family, and Syrmia Fueller and Prince Erich both agreed. She was practically the Imperial heir at this point. Had she brought the crown she may even have considered it, but she had not bothered to invest in the props for such provocations.
Though aesthetically less displeasing than the alternatives, wearing the crown was just as abhorrent.
Norn scoffed. “I prefer to wear my simple ponytail like the humble retainer I am.”
Adelheid laughed. “It’s like some kind of cruel joke isn’t it? A retainer leading the remnants of the #1 family in the Empire, alongside her adjutant, the disgraced heiress of the #2 family; and both dressed up in biological fibers like royalty to meet the Admiral of a dead fleet in the middle of nowhere.”
“Our beautiful story together is just a cruel joke to you? How callous.” Norn teased her.
Soon after Adelheid and Norn dispensed their last barbs, the Antenora was guided by Ajillo traffic control to the small port near the peak of the structure. Military transports would actually dock in an underground berth, accessible through an enormous hatch near the station, and take a long elevator ride up to the barracks in the center pillar. This was a fairly standard design for Military stations. To directly berth in the upper habitat was a privilege for the officers and for the vessels of dignitaries and VIPs. There was only room for two Cruisers or one Dreadnought.
Prior to entering the port, the Jagdkaiser launched from the Antenora as scheduled.
There was not a peep from Ajillo traffic control about this.
They knew they could not defy Norn the Praetorian’s orders in this situation.
And so, as the berth doors closed and the Antenora was secured, the Jagdkaiser hovered in the waters nearby, awaiting its orders. There was no other ship docked into the port structure along with the Antenora, and the station crew managed the fairly breezy job of docking the ship and extending and pressurizing an entry chute to her bulkhead.
Soon enough, the Praetorian and her adjutant found themselves finally entering the port structure.
This was a port that accommodated two ships that would undoubtedly carry people of some military or political pedigree, and as such, the arrivals area was a red carpet affair. A white coat of textured paint made the metal walls seem warmer and more organic, while below their feet, the carpet was silky, gold-inlaid, and colorful. There was no gate, no metal detectors, no security detail. Miniature ship models hung from the ceiling or were stood up on displays flanking the arrivals and before them the wall was dominated by a grand painting of the station layout that was more baroque art than a functional guide. Busts of former station commanders dominated the opposing half of the room.
It was garish, absurd even, an assault to Norn’s eyes in every direction.
Norn had to muster a lot of willpower not to immediately criticize the men who met them in these visually cluttered surroundings. There were only two, though Norn spied a few guards in the hallway leading deeper into the habitat. Both wore uniforms similar to Adelheid’s, with silver tunics and grey pants. Of those who had come to meet them, one was clearly the adjutant, a younger man with slicked golden hair, flashy blue eyes, and a strong jaw, who was smiling gently at them. He had a broad chest and shoulders but slim legs, and slightly slacking posture.
Beside him was a shorter man with thick, brushy mustache, which was the old style among Imperial officers. He had his hands behind his back and kept a critical gaze fixed on Norn herself, unlike the eyes of his adjutant which easily wondered to Adelheid. The generational gap between them must have been similar if not identical to that which Norn had to Adelheid. Though that was where the differences ended. Norn remained a somewhat exotic figure, while this man looked to her like any other rags-on-bones member of their military gerontocracy. As if the greed and hatred found in the soul of the admiralty was peeling and cracking his skin and turning his hair brittle and gray.
“Welcome! It is a pleasure to host such renowned guests. I am Captain Obermeyer.”
They were greeted by the adjutant first. He stepped forward and bowed his head to Norn.
Then when he rose again, he suddenly took Adelheid’s hand and laid a kiss on her fingers.
His eyes moved up to meet hers and she smiled awkwardly back at him.
Norn felt a sudden spike of anger that she hurled invisibly into the captain’s lungs.
In that instant, Captain Obermeyer staggered a step, bent down, momentarily choking.
“Excuse me,” he said in a frog-like, depleted voice, “Something in my chest, very sorry.”
He coughed into the black sleeve of his bodysuit, trying to smile and play it off.
“Get yourself together if you’re going to represent us. I swear; apologies, milord.”
Rear Admiral Vespucio stepped forward and saluted Norn, rather than bow his head.
Adelheid cracked a grin, while Norn retained a surly expression through the introductions.
“You both know who I am: Grand Marshal of the Imbrian Empire, Duke Norn von Fueller. This is my adjutant, Lieutenant Viscountess Adelheid van Mueller. Since we are here on your request, we will permit you to lead the way and set the agenda. I will be blunt, however, that this visit has eaten into my schedule. I hope you realize the favor I am showing you, Vespucio, in standing here before you at all. I trust that my time will be properly respected.”
Though her tone of voice was casual and masked her full displeasure, Norn’s words were pure poison.
While the situation deserved even harsher language, she enjoyed the craft of sinking a man with a veneer of politeness. Captain Obermeyer’s boyish smile seemed to gradually fade as she spoke, while Vespucio stared straight at Norn at first but gradually let his eyes wander like a schoolboy being scolded. It was the effect she desired.
She needed no new friends in this region. She was here purely to indulge a whim.
“Milord, apologies. I was unaware of your promotion to Grand Marshal and believed you still the equivalent of a Fleet Admiral.” Vespucio said. “I congratulate you on your richly deserved ascension and I am proud to serve in a nation which recognizes such once-in-a-century talents. Tales of your exploits reach far and wide.”
“Thank you; but it will take more than flattery for my visit to be worthwhile. Shall we?”
Norn gestured toward the hallway, and Vespucio silently assented.
Past a small group of guards in special occasion wear, through a bulkhead door, the regal white of the arrivals hall gave away again to the unvarnished metal of the station only briefly as they headed to an elevator. There was a small and unadorned courtyard occupied by a few officers in transit. It connected several means of transport to other parts of the station, and they scarcely saw much of it before stepping into an elevator with bronze walls.
Their destination would be the stark opposite of the humble courtyard.
“A place for the officers’ relaxtion and for honored guests.” Vespucio replied. “We’ll start with dinner.”
From the elevator doors they stepped into a massive lounge of umber and fake gold walls replete with false wooden textures, fake wooden tables, imitation leather couches and chairs. There was a bar in the lounge behind which Norn could see a wall of ice chests, likely hiding the alcohol. There were a few side-doors; at one particular door a pair of workers, the lounge waitstaff, ushered them into the location of their fancy officer’s dinner. A comparatively smaller and more tasteful room that had only a table and chairs, a more familiar setting for dinner.
While the room had a lot of imitation wood, the darker color made it less offensive to Norn’s eyes than the burnt umber walls with imitation grain. There was no food yet, but cutlery and glasses of water had been set out for everyone. Four seats were arranged like a cross, bringing to Norn’s mind something like ritual; Adelheid and Obermeyer sat across from each other while Norn sat across from Vespucio. At the door, the pair of waitstaff in their black vests and white shirts bowed their heads and informed them that a first course would be delivered soon.
For Norn, the act of seeing was gradual, like peeling layers. When her mind was idle, she saw hovering colors of auras, dim and gaseous, as if a vaporizer had been smoked in the area and the cloud was fading. Focusing her eyes, flicking an invisible “switch”, she could nullify the auras and calm the surroundings; or she could enhance everything she saw, thereby seeing the “textures” of the aura and realizing the constellation of feelings contained within.
Everything gave off an aura. Only a few people like Norn were cursed to always see it.
This time however she was curious about the atmosphere.
Without any perceptible difference in her countenance, she focused on the auras.
In her time, Norn had developed a system by which she read auras.
Color indicated intensity and proximal emotional responses; but the texture hid the truth.
Obermeyer’s was red with a green stripe; its texture wet and roiling. Lustful, desperate, afraid.
Vespucio’s was calmly blue and green and solid as stone but with black flecks that, every so often, would bubble or vibrate, stirring the entirety of the cloud. Blue was often a signifier for calm, while green represented a disquiet or stress. It was common to see Blue and Green together. Only the most self-controlled humans were fully at peace at any given time. However, the texture and behavior of the aura told Norn that Vespucio was scheming something.
To probe further would invite a brief skirmish between her mind and Vespucio’s will.
She opted to switch targets instead. Norn actively ignored Adelheid’s aura; she focused on the waitstaff all of whom had green and blue auras. Green was far more predominant with thin lines of yellow between the blue and the green. Yellow often meant disgust or sickness, a more extreme discomfort than the comparatively less severe Green. There were two workers, and Norn was assuming one was male and one was female; the lady had more yellow in her aura.
In a few seconds, Norn had a plethora of information about the situation.
And she thought to herself, even if Vespucio held her no ill will, she would kill Obermeyer.
“Are they civilian contractors?” Norn asked, gesturing at the door as the workers departed.
“Indeed they are.” Vespucio said. “My men are too busy, and I would not disrespect them by having them serve me wine and meals, even as a punishment. They are also salt of the earth fellows, they lack refinement, so we have our own cooks here who can serve higher quality meals than the canteen, to suit our elevated tastes.”
“Interesting. Do you eat here often, Captain?” Norn asked, glancing toward Obermeyer.
Obermeyer looked surprised to be addressed by Norn at all. It shook him from a reverie.
“Ah, no milord, not often, this is quite a treat for me actually.” He said.
He laughed and looked to Adelheid as if for some measure of sympathy from a fellow lower rank. Adelheid did not meet his gaze and instead deliberately took interest in Norn as if still waiting on her, playing the dutiful servant. This put Obermeyer in a somewhat awkward position for a moment, until Vespucio finally spoke.
“Milord it is usually just me and Commodore Erbing, but not too long ago, when we easily repaired whole flotillas at this station, we would have more commodores and commanders, as well as wealthy guests, for whom we valued hospitality. Our admiral Gottwald and his family were frequent visitors. Tragic that he met his end.”
“I hear he fought with pride to the end. Is that not how we all wish to go?” Norn said.
Vespucio and Obermeyer both seemed quite put off by that remark.
Norn saw a brief spasm in their auras. A green band was thickening in Obermeyer’s own.
“Will the Commodore be joining us? I’d love to hear his side of station life.” Norn asked.
Vespucio replied curtly, “He is busy.”
“Ah, unfortunate. It would have made for an interesting layout on this table.”
There was hardly any conversation until the first dishes came in.
After all, what would any man in this evil era have to say to someone like Norn?
Now that she was seated at their table and could not be turned away–
And now that she knew the tone of the evening better–
Norn could have all the fun that she wanted with them!
Her carefully maintained countenance slowly melted into a mocking, prideful grin.
Adelheid seemed to have noticed, and even Obermeyer glanced at her more than he ogled the adjutant. While often calm in her own element, around others, she knew she was known for being something of a hyena.
She couldn’t help it; the pretensions of the Imbrians drew out her very worst.
So she put on a face that fully expressed her amusement and satisfaction.
“Happy to see you in good spirits milord. Let us enjoy this meal, dedicated to your grace.”
“Why, thank you; I shall relish testing the mettle of your contracted chefs then!”
“Um, yes, of course, of course milord.”
Adelheid sighed, perhaps partly out of fondness, perhaps partly out of understanding.
Obermeyer averted his gaze to the door.
Norn’s sadistic side was slowly coming out from under the silky layers that hid it.
When the doors opened again, the waitstaff returned with the first course. Norn caught a glimpse of green on the plate as it was brought in, but even she was a little impressed when she saw the spread laid down before her. On each plate was a bright green, fresh salad of firm lettuce leaves, glistening with vinegar and mustard, a dusting of salty cheese, and gilded with bright red, juicy chunks of tomato. Amid the bed of leaves were perfectly golden cured egg yolks, like bubbles which when lightly forked released their creamy contents to the leaves around them.
Adelheid had the tiniest grin when she began to eat.
Such foods were not uncommon to her, both because she had a rich background, but because the Muellers were once farm monopolists in the Palatinate. Adelheid had eaten fresh greens, fresh eggs. She was a spoiled girl for whom nothing was new or interesting. Nevertheless, she was clearly enjoying the rich taste of the greens.
Obermeyer admired the salad almost as much as he had admired Adelheid’s breasts.
He had the response of a boy clearly from a humbler background than anyone at the table.
Norn was someone between worlds. She knew the decadence of the upper class table and the privation of months aboard military ships eating canned ham, cured cheese and reconstituted spinach. But even Konstantin never showed off to her like this. A fresh green salad; as soon as Norn brought a forkful of leaves to her mouth she realized they were far more authentic than the wood varnish on everything in the lounge. They had not been frozen, they had not been dried, they had not been pickled, they had not been reconstituted into leaf shape out of a block by a biostitcher.
Everything was fresh and firm and asymmetrical as only genuinely grown food could be.
Delicious as it was, something about it made her angry.
Why was this backwater station that could barely function militarily growing fresh greens?
Only for Vespucio to infrequently impress his guests? They could not be growing many.
“Delicious isn’t it? Grew them myself. Something of a hobby.” Vespucio said.
Absolute crap. You couldn’t lift your gun, much less a shovel. Norn grinned to herself.
Norn glanced at the waitstaff standing at attention the instant he said that.
She could see the turn of the yellow in their auras, growing, writhing.
“What kind of growing medium do you use?” Norn asked.
There was the briefest flash of confusion in Vespucio’s face. “Growing medium–?”
Norn grinned, interrupting.
“Well, it affects the taste of course! Synthetic soils, collapse ash, micropellets, come now, you know this– oh, and what fertilizer? Human? It’d be a clever way to recycle waste. Actually, we should work on a proposal! Imagine, every military outpost growing more than mushrooms and algae. You could revolutionize military feeding, Vespucio!”
Vespucio’s eyes drew wide as Norn spoke. He was instantly put in his place.
“Let’s not– talk about human waste at the table milord, funny as your grace’s humor is–”
“Fair; but you will personally walk me through the growing setup later.” Norn said.
Once everyone’s appetite had been whetted by the crispy green morsels, the waitstaff took their plates and left behind a bronze tray containing a few crisps speared into a soft mound of an orange-colored sauce flecked with green. Norn did not partake. Adelheid picked up a crisp and took a single sauce-dolloped bite. She struggled not to recoil from it, and delicately ate the rest of the crisp sans sauce. Norn surmised from this that the sauce was too spicy for her.
To the refined Imbrian palate, hot pepper was an anomaly.
The Serrano region was once upon a time known for its hot peppers, however.
“Careful, Lieutenant.” Obermeyer said, smiling at her. “Hot sauces are a local specialty.”
“Hmph.” Adelheid grumbled. “I should hope it won’t all be so astringent.”
Vespucio shot her a look as if angered at her remarks, while Obermeyer, clearly charmed by her response, replied in a soft and assuring voice, “Fear not, milady, I’m sure we have something for a more discerning and delicate palate such as yours. We knew we would have refined ladies for guests, and the chef’s world class.”
“Am I counted among the refined ladies visiting?” Norn asked.
Obermeyer seemed to be hit by Norn’s words as if struck by lightning every time.
“O-Of course milord!”
Norn grinned. “I just noticed I’ve only been referred to as ‘milord’ or ‘duke’ tonight.”
Adelheid smiled mischievously, gesturing to Norn. “Obermeyer, how is your etiquette?”
“How is it?” Obermeyer asked.
“Were you formally taught? In fact, let me expand the question. What is your background?”
“My background? Well, if you’re so curious, my family had some money, we were never struggling. No peerage of course.” Obermeyer said. “I was taught formal etiquette– I attended Liebknecht School for Boys.”
“Such a prestigious school, but oh dear, what even are boys taught in it?” Adelheid teased.
“Why do you say that?”
“You’ve been mindlessly calling the lady Fueller ‘milord’ this whole time.”
Obermeyer stared at Adelheid in wide-eyed confusion until Vespucio cleared his throat.
He finally decided to butt in and rescue his disappointing adjutant.
“Now, don’t be so hard on the boy. Obermeyer, we call Norn von Fueller ‘milord’ or ‘duke’, in the male form, because those are the titles she was legally given. You do not call the lady van Mueller whatever you want, you call her the title she possesses, and its specific honorifics. That is true for milord von Fueller regardless of her gender.”
“Ah, apologies Admiral. He’s such a lively lad I can’t help but tease.” Adelheid giggled.
Obermeyer squirmed for a bit, trying to laugh it off. Norn contained her own laughter.
While they were speaking of backgrounds, there was no need to go over Adelheid’s or Norn’s. Adelheid had been big news. Her family was the number two family in the Empire in terms of proximity to the throne and influence in peerage politics. Her being disinherited and having her surname struck from ‘von’ to ‘van’ Mueller was news.
Nevertheless, she was still owed respect by people without any peerage. And every military man had heard of Norn, it was impossible not to have done so. Inviting Norn to recount her past would have given her a chance to criticize and seek grievance. Not because she felt hurt or pressured but simply because she could and would do so.
Even someone like Obermeyer knew not to extend a conversation about backgrounds and social origins to cover Adelheid’s disgrace or Norn’s infamy. He knew that much etiquette. So there was no place to take such a conversation beyond himself. Vespucio’s background was not up for casual discussion either. He was a Rear Admiral. Obermeyer should already know him. Norn did — though there was not much to know about him ultimately.
He was just any other career military man, long-serving in a quiet post.
Knowing this, Adelheid had probed the only person in the room who could be probed.
Thankfully for Obermeyer, his rudimentary etiquette and upper middle class upbringing would not continue to be the center of attention for much longer. The conversation was given a reprieve by the arrival of the second course which was set into bowls brought on plates. Knowing the mores of Imbrian haute cuisine, Norn knew that the second course would be a soup course. First was an aperitif, then soup, main course, and finally tea or coffee.
Those bowls were served steaming hot with a thick golden yellow soup upon which floated circles of green onion. That creamy surface was gilded with circles of suspended oils. A single piece of bread was offered, crusty on the outside but pillowy soft and warm within. And in the middle of the table, a bottle of wine and several small glasses were set around a plate of pickled carrot and pepper with lardons. Norn tasted the soup and found it rich with a subtle tang from lemon juice. Katarrans called this avgolemono but in Imbria it was tebiye, from the Shimii.
Norn felt a bitter feeling tasting the food of two ruined cultures as Imbrian haute cuisine.
“Your chef has range, Vespucio.” Norn said.
“Glad you are enjoying it, milord.”
“Has he met a Shimii in his life? Or a Katarran?”
“I– I wouldn’t know, milord?”
Though she had been waiting for another brag, Vespucio was no longer setting himself up for Norn’s verbal counterstrokes. In fact, after this exchange he remained unpleasantly quiet for most of the dinner.
While Obermeyer tried to chat Adelheid up about the food or service life, comments which she rarely reciprocated; and Norn interrupted every so often to tease him or make a joke; Vespucio simply wouldn’t bite. The great and generous Rear Admiral had become miserly with words. Perhaps unused to receiving barbs in return for his flattery and vain flaunting of his privilege. Norn was simply not impressed with him, and he was perhaps not ready for it.
What was he hoping to gain from this? What did he even know of her character?
Once the soup bowls were emptied, the servants took them away and returned with main courses. They proudly declared that for the men, there was spicy beef bourguignon. Slices of tender steak clearly lacquered in a red sauce of wine, mirepoix, fat, and hot peppers; for the women, coq-au-vin was on order, served in a delightfully dark red wine sauce with waxy potatoes and crisp carrots. As with every other dish at the table, Norn had to hand it to the chef. Even the “blander” dish for the “female palate” was full of rich flavors, the wine sauce emulsified with the chicken fats and starch from the potatoes to a naturally unctuous consistency without a heavy hand of dairy.
Despite there being wine in the sauces, the wine for the table had been well chosen to pair. Not a rare vintage, but serviceable and complex with a gentle alcoholic bite and a sweetness that complimented the aggressive meatiness of the main course. Everyone ate, everyone looked happy, but soon no one was exchanging a word. All talk around the table had quieted down from what little there even was before the main course.
Such eerie gatherings were not unusual at the tables of the rich and powerful.
An invitation to eat was a veneer of politeness.
Friendship and camaraderie did not factor into it. It was like choosing clothing over nudity.
Bitter enemies could share a meal to prove a shared sense of civilization, a code of honor.
Many high class dinners passed in quiet indulgence, until moved to shadowy backrooms. Even a chatty series of guests often served as a veil to hide other intentions. For the upper class and military social climbers, self-interested people who sought only positions, power, advantages, it was rarer to have friends at the table than to have prey. For the conversation around Vespucio’s table to have died out simply meant everyone was being more honest.
Norn happily ate the food, and happily let the clock run on Vespucio’s ambitions.
But nobody at the table could be under the illusion that they were truly friends.
Soon, there came the first shattering of the veneer.
After the main course, coffee and sweet patisserie would be served, but–
“Milord, would you indulge me in taking our coffee in private? I wish to discuss an important matter with you, and I hope that we could do so without further interruption. Obermeyer shall entertain the lady Mueller. With our adjutants out of earshot, we can speak more candidly to one another, no offense to the lady or my good Captain.”
Vespucio interrupted the dinner to suggest their last course be taken in private.
Such a request was not unreasonable if there was a sense of urgency or a prior agreement.
However, Norn had not been invited to Ajillo under any pretext of emergency.
As such, trying to hurry her in this manner, to functionally disband the table, was rude.
Norn did not point out this fact. She had no desire to continue playing tea party.
“Gladly. Lead the way, Rear Admiral.”
She glanced briefly at Adelheid, who nodded her assent, understanding the situation.
They had already discussed the possibility of such a thing happening.
If he had a plan, Vespucio would peel his mask off and expose his scheme soon. So Norn followed him out of the room, a tiny thrill in her chest, curious of what would result. Watching the colors in his aura as a tiny, creeping black line began to appear. The fear of; acceptance of; or even experience of death.
Norn followed Vespucio out one of the side doors in the lounge to a metallic hallway, barren save for a door at the end. On the opposite end of the hallway was a single automatic bulkhead door that was locked by an officer’s keycard, and behind that door was an observation room. Reinforced glass and steel grid walls dominated half of the space, exposing the grim blue of the ocean outside. While a few fish bounced off the glass here and there, curious about the light emanating from the room, there was nothing to see, unless Vespucio was secretly a dolphin.
While normally a room like this would be filled with computing equipment and a multi-purpose detection array, this particular room had only a square island surrounded by a few chairs for sitting and taking tea, and a few cabinets that seemed to contain tea and coffee-making accoutrements. It was largely unoccupied and unadorned, though Norn could see scrapes on the floor where equipment had perhaps once stood. There was probably a gun hidden in the island. Norn could not imagine why Vespucio had this room, except as a vain attempt at grandeur.
“Have a seat, milord. I wish to have a hopefully brief discussion if you will allow it.”
“Discuss to your heart’s content, Vespucio.”
Norn and Vespucio sat across from one another.
Alone in this room, they dispensed with the pleasantries.
There was coffee in cups between them but no cakes, no shiny silverware, no servants.
Only two people staring daggers at each other and awaiting a backroom verbal spar.
Vespucio studied her, his aura thrashing as he thought of what to say.
Norn rested her chin on steepled fingers, waiting for a response.
“Milord, how much do you know about the military-political situation here in Sverland?”
He raised his cup to his lips, as if wanting to punctuate a hard stop in his words.
Norn briefly shut her eyes and smiled. There was overwhelming color around Vespucio even though his face was as stone-like as ever. She needed to shut her eyes every so often to avoid the strain. “I know that when Konstantin’s passing was unfortunately leaked to the military, your commanding officer, Gottwald, launched a sudden raid on the bandit nation to the south, without any authorization. This was shortly after Groessen, former Duke of the territories on the Union border, was provoked to launch his own mission to the Union border for unknown reasons. Gottwald and most of Sverland’s functioning military forces were slaughtered by the communists.”
“That assessment is correct regarding the preamble to our present dilemma, but I can’t help but notice that Milord makes a shocking habit of calling many men of power by familiar names and without their titles.”
“Konstantin himself allowed me his name; if I can speak his name, I can speak any.”
“Fair enough. You always had a special relationship to his majesty.” Vespucio said.
“I was a retainer beloved by all of the Fueller family, enough to be adopted.”
Konstantin was so lovesick toward his youngest wife Leda Lettiere, that after her passing some twenty years ago, rumors began to bubble around him and Norn pertaining to Norn’s rise in stature. Did his attentions shift to Norn? Such gossip completely disgusted Norn, but even an indiscrete homosexual life did not seem to dispel the suspicions, judging by Vespucio’s attitude. She was exotic, powerful, an outsider; therefore hated and feared.
“There was some shock in the high society circles pertaining to your ascendance to heading the Fueller family. Had you been a man, there may have been pressure on you to marry Duchess Syrmia in order to solidify your position within the family. Perhaps pressure to assume the throne. We live in progressive times for women: I’m curious if political alliances such as this are in milord’s plans? Anything that stabilizes our politics would be welcomed news.”
“I’m afraid my nuptials would do nothing to stabilize our society at this point.” Norn said. “Regardless of the rumors swirling around in the chaos I am not the emperor, nor am I an Emperor-in-waiting.”
“Then Prince Erich will assume the throne in the Palatinate?”
“You have a very old fashioned understanding of the situation, Vespucio.”
“Am I wrong to believe that the ascendance of an Emperor to our empty throne would do much to alleviate the present situation, where we have several illegitimate powers at work pulling the Empire in their own ways? Milord would know more than me about such things I’m sure, but filling the seat would help, no?”
“You are missing the point of our current crisis to an alarming degree.” Norn said. “Having an Emperor changes nothing. The Volkisch would not back down, for example. To them, we have entered a stage of history where the throne of the Palatinate carries no power. It does not confer to the wielder the resources of an Empire as it did before. Those resources have returned to their constituent states; filling the seat will not bring them back.”
She could have explained the motivations of any given faction.
But she wanted to introduce the word to the conversation. To be the first to say Volkisch.
His aura reacted no more strongly to this word than any, unfortunately.
“Your assessment is grim, but I’m afraid I must agree that it is quite valid, even here.”
“I didn’t get where I am by not knowing what I’m talking about, Vespucio.”
Norn narrowed her eyes at him, and Vespucio seemed to sigh at the increasing hostility.
“At the present,” he began, as if ignoring or papering over the previous conversation for now, “Sverland is in chaos. We have hardly any military power. To our south, the communists could advance at any moment if they wanted to. We have no way to stop them and no forthcoming military supplies because, to our west, a group of aristocrats have started a breakaway state and taken hostage almost all our military-industrial capacity. To our east, the Vekans, who are orientals with no Imbrian solidarity, have declared their own Empire. They have a hundred times our remaining fighting strength at their command. Milord, there is no way we can fight in the emperor’s name.”
“What do you want from me, Vespucio? Why did you invite me here?” Norn asked.
“You wield considerable powers. Any news would be good news from you. Will the Grand Western Fleet cut down through Rhinea and relieve us? Will Prince Erich ride out as Emperor and squash these rebellions? We need to know the intentions of the ruling house of Fueller. Every other territory has rebelled, only we have remained loyal. What are we expected to do? How are we going to be repaid for our loyalty? To remain loyal?” He said.
He was still betraying no emotion. Simply staring her down directly in the eyes.
Norn wanted to simply tell him to go die, but she also wanted to draw things out a bit more.
“At the moment Prince Erich is preparing for a campaign to the Bosporus-Volgia front and securing the border with Rhinea through limited engagements.” She said calmly. “The leftist movements in Bosporus and Buren concern the long-term stability of the Palatinate, as they present a threat to our most accessible supplies of Agarthicite. We are not in a position to march down to Sverland until we can secure the resources to defeat Rhinea.”
“So we’re stranded then? Is it any wonder then that there is talk in Serrano of capitulating to the Volkisch? Would you blame them, milord? Would you have us stand against them and punish them for it? My men and I are helpless in the midst of this cyclone! We can’t possibly uphold the Empire’s law in this state. We barely have weapons and supplies. At this juncture all we can afford with our funds and supplies is to surrender!” Vespucio said.
“But you have the funds and supplies for salad greens, fine wine and a private chef?” Norn said.
“Such things are easier to acquire than coilgun shells!” Vespucio shouted back. He was clearly offended by her response to his hospitality. “I invited you here milord because I need to know what the Empire expects from my men now. My wealth can’t buy them guns and ships! So will you provide them for us?”
Norn sighed mockingly and shrugged her shoulders at him with a grin.
“Vespucio you put on such a boring show. I wish you’d capitulate to the Union instead.”
Vespucio’s eyes drew wide. “Is this a joke to you? I have thousands of men in this station!”
Whether he meant this as a threat or to garner sympathy, he seemed to leave ambiguous.
Norn finally lifted her cup of coffee and began to drink as if ceding the floor again.
Vespucio grunted his indignation.
He began to shake his head, his hands up to his face. “This is my reward for not riding out with Gottwald? Had I turned traitor, maybe we would have defeated the Union and improved our situation. And yet despite my loyalty the Fueller family so easily abandons me? You are legitimizing the actions of men like Gottwald, Norn von Fueller!”
“I commend Gottwald’s foolish audacity. He at least took his destiny into his own hands.”
Norn smiled at Vespucio as she put down her cup. She calmly watched his aura begin to turn furiously red.
“Do you have your own ambitions, Vespucio? Tell me: what will you do now?”
“Do you think I’m afraid of you? You are a resourceful woman, Norn, but only a woman.”
Vespucio raised a firearm right at Norn’s head. Her eyes shifted to stare at the barrel now pointed between them.
She moved to raise her arms as if to yield to him. He began to rant at her.
“Without an Emperor and army to hide behind, you are nothing so frightening. In a world without titles and dynasties, without peerage and noblesse oblige, without lèse-majesté, the only thing that matters then, is this.” Vespucio gestured with his head toward his own gun. “Without an Emperor all that matters is who is holding this gun to whose head. This gun, Norn, is your doing. Through your inaction, you have forced me to put this gun to your head.”
Norn laughed. “You’re more correct than you appreciate Vespucio. It is my doing.”
“What kind of cakes do you like, Viscountess? I can get the staff on it right away. Judging by that incredible dinner spread, we may even rival the taste from the Muellers’ own kitchen.”
“Such hubris! I very much doubt you can!”
Adelheid gave Obermeyer a pleasant smile and leaned forward with her hands behind her back.
This pushed her chest very close to the suddenly flustered Captain, who was taken aback by the contact.
She poked at his chest with one slender finger while responding in a cheery voice:
“My favorite cake is tamarind-passionfruit rum cake, so what do you say to that?”
She winked at him as if; a wink she almost hoped would just behead him where he stood.
Instead he took a step back and tried to play it off with a laugh.
“Well, I guess we are completely outmatched.” He said, raising his hands as if in defense.
“As a peace offering, I can put up with any cake, as long as my coffee has milk and sugar.”
She backed up a step, hands behind her, tipping her head to one side in a cutesy way.
“That’s some tough diplomacy. But we can make it work.” Obermeyer replied.
He motioned for her to follow her out of the room where they had taken their dinner.
Informing the waitstaff that they move to the ‘private lounge’, with his guest assumed to consent, Obermeyer led her out into the main lounge and to another side area, with a short hall that seemed to branch to the bathrooms, and which ended in a keycard door. When he flashed his own card at it, it opened to reveal a cozy room with more fake nutty-brown wood varnish, lit orange yellow, with leather seats and a square island set as a table for two. Obermeyer left the door open for the waitstaff to return with coffee and cheesecake, the door finally closing after their departure.
Now it was just Adelheid and Obermeyer inside of that room.
“Viscountess, would you permit me to call you by given name?” Obermeyer asked.
She replied with a silly little twist of her voice and took a sip of her coffee.
“Ah, I’m sorry, I meant no offense.”
“Well then, you’ve done a sorry job of looking sorry. For your information, only Master Norn is allowed to call me by name.” She said, putting on a fake pout, leaving Obermeyer momentarily confused.
Adelheid van Mueller was often accused of not acting her age.
Young as she may have outwardly looked, at thirty years old, she had no business having adventures. Many women in the Imbrian military, particularly aristocrats, served a few years, if any, got a token promotion, retired, and married a man. Those Imbrian women who passed their twenties and remained in the service were seen as lesbians, mentally ill, or otherwise having something wrong with them in the eye of polite society, even if they had great achievements.
In her mind, Adelheid was past the stage of her life where everything was so complicated.
To her, every new year meant that she had a narrower focus on what interested her.
And a greater disdain and less time to spare for anything that she found boring.
It was only Norn von Fueller who truly understood the appeal of her philosophy.
“Growing up” was to surrender to a set of orthodoxies about what a “woman” was.
Orthodoxies which included a submissive deference to boring men like Obermeyer.
“Captain, there is only thing about you that interests me.” Adelheid said, reaching across the table to poke him with a stirring stick that had been dipped briefly in the coffee, and rubbing down the brown stain on his shirt. He looked down at it with a frozen expression he once reserved only for Norn. “I’m only curious, what it is you are interested about in me. Rather than stumbling around awkwardly trying to establish a familiarity you’ll not get, you should merely shower a girl in compliments, for that is all a girl wants from a man she does not know. Once you have paid your toll in flattery I will reward your loyalty with pleasant answers to questions about myself.”
Again Adelheid sipped her coffee, discarding the stirring stick at the side of her coaster.
Obermeyer again tried to smile and laugh it off, the oafish boy.
“You high class girls are something else! I don’t even stand a chance. Very well; lady van Mueller, from the moment I saw you, it was your eyes that took me in. So dark and intelligent; I wondered how it must have been like to serve under that terrifying lord Fueller. Now I see that it’s got to be that wit of yours that gets you by.”
“You liked my eyes?” Adelheid said, “but my eyes aren’t down here?”
She ran a hand provocatively over her chest, winking again.
“I– Well, your figure is just so– it’s– Of course any lad’s eyes would–”
“Lads who are like any lad are the most boring kind by definition.”
Adelheid shot him a narrow-eyed, disgruntled look for a brief moment and sighed.
Again Obermeyer seemed frozen. At times she wondered if she had an aura like Norn.
Or if perhaps Norn was simply the first woman to disrespect him and now she the second.
“You did ask a tantalizing question though– what was it?”
“Um. Yes, I– I did want to ask about your relationship to lord Norn.”
“Well, I’m her distinguished adjutant. You’d be surprised to hear, but she can’t function without me. She’s such a hopeless woman as a matter of fact!” Adelheid declared this with such delight it seemed to stun Obermeyer again. “I bet you could never imagine it, but the powerful and frightening Norn von Fueller, left to her own devices skips her meals until her brain is screaming, hardly sleeps, and works until her body completely quits on her! And despite all of that, she will always insist it’s part of a rigid schedule, in which caring for herself was simply allotted no time.”
Obermeyer blinked several times. “I– that sounds rough– Viscountess–”
Adelheid clapped her hands together in delight.
“Oh no, it is very fulfilling work. Do you ever see a woman like lord Norn, who has such a beautiful face and body and prodigious talent, but beneath it all is a mannish, acerbic thug with such poor socialization; and of course you think to yourself ‘that’s a project; I can surely fix her’?”
“I can’t say that I do.”
“Oh, true, I suppose you wouldn’t.”
Obermeyer seemed to miss the particular tone of that response and did not comment on it.
“Well, it sounds like the two of you are quite close.” Obermeyer said.
“Do we not all live in submission to our lords?” Adelheid said.
“That’s– a curious thing to say.”
Adelheid tried a bite of the cake. It had a one-note sweetness that was acceptable.
She smiled vacantly at him, as if waiting for Obermeyer to make any kind of movement.
He finally spoke up: “Norn is coercing you, isn’t she? That’s why you can’t speak freely.”
“Hmm? Have you been listening at all?”
Obermeyer reached out and grabbed her hand suddenly.
“Such words couldn’t have come from you. I realize what it must be like, working for such a powerful, evil person that it warps how you can talk to anyone. But we are safe here.” He said.
“What are you saying? Let go of me.”
Adelheid snapped her hand back.
Obermeyer had a conflicted look on his face all of a sudden.
“It must be true. The Rear Admiral told me the rumors about Norn. That she is a rapacious deviant whose sins the emperor forgave for her viciousness in enforcing the Fueller family’s edicts. Your behavior– she’s clearly tried to ruin you– milady, you don’t have to serve her anymore!”
His voice was becoming erratic with a strange passion. Adelheid grit her teeth in anger.
“How dare you! Such things are always said by jealous men when a woman gains power!”
“You don’t have to cover for her! Lady van Mueller, Norn’s days are numbered.”
Adelheid had been prepared for this eventuality, but hearing the words still stunned her.
There was no preparing her to face a deadly threat. No matter how much she expected it.
She was too emotional a girl. So her eyes welled up with her tears, but she stood defiantly.
“Norn is no more rapacious than any of you thugs.” Adelheid said, baring the full venom in her voice. “And you will not find her easy prey. I pity you for the punishment you’ll receive.”
Obermeyer drew a firearm at her from seemingly under the table.
Or maybe from a slot in the island. Adelheid had not thought to check.
She herself carried no weapons. She was neither authorized nor issued with any.
“Soon you’ll be free.” Obermeyer said coldly. “The Rear Admiral has a plan to destroy Norn and the Fuellers. We will be your knights, lady van Mueller. Let us protect you, please. You do not have to stay with that monster.”
Adelheid smiled through her tears, her heart racing, her mind clouded with stress and anger.
“I have no need for a knight, Captain. I’m quite happy with the monster who has taken me.”
Obermeyer bared his own gritted teeth. “Then I’ll be a knave instead and you my hostage.”
He stood up from the table, still aiming the gun at her, and moved slowly and with menace.
“We wanted you to give us access to the Antenora, but we can use you in other ways.”
“That is the greatest difference between you and Norn, Captain. Men just want to use me.”
“And Norn does not? Does that vile woman truly care about you?”
“Norn needs me.”
Obermeyer narrowed his eyes with clear contempt.
“You must be brainwashed. I can’t see how anything you say makes sense otherwise.”
Adelheid grinned bitterly at him.
He would be surprised to hear she was one of the few people who wasn’t.
“Follow me to the detention center. I know enough etiquette that I won’t drag you there unless you make me do so.” Obermeyer said. His pistol hovering just short of Adelheid’s chest. He stood over her while she had remained seated, and defiantly seated she stayed, looking up at him. Tears in her eyes, a smile on her face, and a pounding heart full of trust in her master. She was emotional, but she was not afraid of him.
“I will do nothing to make you feel heroic, you bastard.” Adelheid said. “I won’t be your helpless girl. Drag me from this chair with all your strength. I’ll bite and claw and kick like an animal until you shoot me.”
Obermeyer’s finger slipped through the trigger guard. “Get up now, you shrill bitch.”
Adelheid thought of doing something rash like grabbing the gun and daring him.
Something like what Norn would do in this situation–
Her impulse was quelled stopped by a sudden crash– a sound of shredding metal, and the pitched whine of something slicing through the thin air like a bullet just barely crossing the ear–
–the sudden disappearance of Obermeyer’s hand, leaving only a wet, dripping stump.
Norn stood from behind the island table as commanded by Vespucio, the cold steel of the barrel never lifting from the bridge of her nose as she moved. At literal arm’s length, Vespucio himself moved out from around the table so they could stand face to face without obstacles. Norn demurred to only this instruction.
She continued to smile to herself as she watched him sweat.
“So who is it that you’re selling me off to? It’s not your own initiative is it? You’ve said this yourself. You’re not like Gottwald. You’re always loyal to somebody else’s orders.” Her voice turned mocking.
“You can judge me all you want from your high castle.” He said. He almost looked for a second like he would spit in disgust at her, but all he spat was more words. “I can’t do anything but to follow the currents, and down here, they favor the Volkisch Movement. Who else am I going to turn to? That Royal Alliance plundering the countryside? The Vekans? The Solceanos zealots? It is clear we only have a place with the Volkisch.”
“So you don’t see anything in the Volkisch Movement, but a process of elimination?”
Vespucio’s narrowed eyes continued to stare directly into hers without once faltering.
“Theirs is the only world I’ve been promised without rule by bloodlines or false faiths.”
“You truly believe that? You believe the Volkisch Movement professes a coherent truth?”
“I know they are the pragmatic choice, and that puts them above everyone else.” He said.
Norn grinned at him and shrugged. “I didn’t realize the sons of Campos could be so shockingly sympathetic to elaborate racism, when they themselves have been so exposed to it.”
“I’m not a Campos. I’m an Imbrian. I have done nothing but serve the Imbrian Empire.”
“You’ll find as I have, that it doesn’t work that way, no matter how high you reach.”
“Shut up. The only Campos thing I’ll say to you is how tired I am of being lectured by a puerca like you. A bitch fed by the golden spoon of the Emperor having your shamelessness. We all sucked up to you because Konstantin von Fueller looked through your eyes and struck terror in us. We all feared and respected the enforcer of the Imbrian Empire. If you’re not backed by a fleet fighting for the throne, you’re just some whore.” Vespucio said.
He pressed the barrel more tightly against Norn’s nose, gritting his teeth.
Clearly letting out all the repressed stress and disgust that had lain behind his etiquette.
“Vespucio, in your mind, what happens now?” Norn asked.
For the first time, Vespucio grinned at her, viciously, full of bloodthirst.
“Once you are in Volkisch custody, Erich’s faction will surely collapse. That boy has only coasted on the power of the Grand Western Fleet. He is no great man of state; he has amply demonstrated this. Your capture and execution by the Volkisch will level the Fuellers and any power they have after the death of the Emperor. And I just keep eating my fresh beef and greens; with Gottwald gone I may even be promoted to Fleet Admiral for Sverland.”
“Do you really think the Volkisch see you as part of the National Proletarian ubermensch?”
“They’ll see me as a willing collaborator who delivered a political prize. That’s all I need.”
He pushed the barrel against her head and his hand forward, as if cautioning her against moving, while his free hand withdrew from his coat a handset into which he spoke with a voice filled with triumph.
“I have taken the Tower. Prize claim in Observation room Ludwig. Schnell.”
“Your High Imbrian is quite good.” Norn said calmly.
Vespucio put the handset back in his coat pocket and snorted, indignant with her tone.
“Why are you so chipper? You think you can escape? You look down on me at your own peril. I’ve heard stories about your exploits, but this time, I’ve ambushed you, Norn. You’ve walked into my fortress and you are isolated here because you are a vain, self-obsessed cunt. Whatever plot you are concocting in your head, don’t try it. You’re more useful alive but I will pull this trigger the instant I see any muscle on you even twitch my way.”
“Fair enough. I will not move any muscle that you can see.”
“I can only hope when my time comes, I go out as gracefully or as insane as you.”
Seconds later, the door opened. A squadron breached the room in a quick and practiced formation. Four men in uniform with boxy, compact submachine guns entered the room and set their sights on Norn, two standing and two crouching, likely bearing frangible loads to perforate her flesh but not the walls. Behind them two other men appeared ready to collect her, with cuffs, a straitjacket, and what looked like a loup muzzle in tow, along syringes full of drugs to knock her out. The party assembled at the door, and the men approached with their cruel implements.
Vespucio briefly glanced sideways to confirm their arrival.
At that point, Norn responded without moving a muscle that Vespucio could see.
She took a calm breath and twitched the muscle in her mind.
Around her, everything turned blue as if filling with water. Everyone stood frozen still.
Quickly and wordlessly, Norn grabbed hold of Vespucio’s hand. There was no reaction.
With a brutal crunch, she bent it backwards at the wrist, tore his fingers off the gun.
She ran to the men, turned their upper bodies to face each other, like playing with dolls.
Each of their fingers she squeezed against the trigger. None of them responded in any way.
Finally she stood at the flank of the two men arriving to capture her. She raised the gun to the temple of one man, making sure he lined up with his partner, and rapped the trigger. Then, and only then, head hazy without air and her heart struggling to beat, did Norn finally let out a breath. Around her, the bubble collapsed as if it never existed, returning the true colors of the room. Suddenly, everyone was moving again.
In the next instant bullets went flying, blood sprayed, corpses fell, rhythmically, all at once.
Within the time it took to blink, Vespucio found his hand shattered and his men dead.
Obermeyer gasped for breath; his chest appeared to seize with shock.
He lifted the end of his arm where his hand once was and stared at the space now empty save for blood that pooled and began to drip down what was once his wrist across the remains of his forearm. His eyes drew wide and his handsome face blanched until he was sheet-white. He lifted his other hand as though he needed a model to confirm what he was seeing. His legs shook and beads of sweat glistened on his face.
On the floor his firearm lay discarded.
Adelheid kicked the firearm away and stepped calmly back to avoid the dripping blood.
She turned to the door, covering her mouth and nose. Everything reeked of bloody iron.
On the door to the lounge was an orifice the size of a fist, blossoming like a flower with shredded steel its petals. A projectile the size of plumbing pipe had gone through the steel door flying bullet fast, and it embedded itself in the wall behind them. Much of its structure was a sharp, sleek, jet-black spike, save for the back, where a small pustule dribbled a bloody-smelling fluid and gas. Obermeyer was too focused on his injury to see this shocking thing.
There was a brief flash of motion behind the door itself, visible through the orifice.
Several thick, slimy tendrils squeezed through the hole.
One of them had an object cradled on its end, like a cylinder with flashing LEDs.
It slid this object into the side of the card-key reader on their end.
Then the door locks shifted with a chunky, metallic noise that alerted Obermeyer.
Through the hole the tentacles retreated; and through the door, a woman walked in.
Shorter than Adelheid, dressed in a blood-streaked black robe with the hood thrown back.
Her face, pale as chalk, streaked across by a splash of red, wore a vicious fang-baring grin. Her shoulder-length white hair also had a streak of blood running across to match where it had splashed on her face.
“Y’ok Addie? Norn’ll kill me if I got here too late to prevent ya bein’ ruined for marriage.”
Adelheid pouted. “I would’ve never let it get that far! I can defend myself, Hunter III.”
“Who is– How did– Why–”
Obermeyer clutched his wrist as if he could make the blood stop running.
He stared at the door with wild, unbelieving eyes.
At the pale, blood-strewn Hunter III calmly approaching–
Whose arm, exposed at the end of her long sleeve, spread like a flower of tentacled flesh.
Petals of sinewy skin that seemed to shift like a sped-up timelapse of a blossoming plant.
These protrusions collapsed into themselves, reabsorbing the tendrils into an ordinary arm.
“Monster–” Obermeyer gasped, doubled over, choking. “Help– Help me–“
“Any word from Norn?” Adelheid asked, ignoring Obermeyer’s pleas for help.
“Y’really worried for her and not ya’self?” Hunter III asked, tilting her head like a cat.
Adelheid felt that was a solid ‘no’ to her question. “How many have you eaten?”
Hunter III shrugged. “Started with one; but I tasted a disease in ‘im I didn’t wanna risk it.”
“How picky. Is that where you got the door override key? Does that work for other doors?”
“Y’think I know? I can barely get the food dispensers to work, I dunno! Norn told me the thing I needed to get, and I got it. If you tell me a thing to get with pictures I’ll go get it.” Hunter III lifted up and waved the override cylinder to prove her point. She must have found it through omen seeing; so she really did not know how it worked or what it did, or whether it was restricted. She just saw it pop into her head and knew where it was.
Just then, an LED strip running along the edges of the ceiling began to flash red.
A female voice began to broadcast.
“All stations to high alert. Mobilize all squadrons to detain vessel in the upper dock.”
“Ah heck.” Hunter III said.
Adelheid caught Obermeyer moving from the corner of her vision.
He was trying to lift a handset communicator to his trembling lips.
“You need more biomass right?” She said. “I hate this man. Eat him and let us leave.”
Hunter III’s eyes settled on Obermeyer and a wide smile spread across her lips.
“Oh he does look like a snack.” She said, licking her lips.
She lifted her arm, holding her palm out toward him, eyes glowing red.
With an audible crunch, her wrist broke, separating her hand in two unnatural halves with the fingers backwards and melding into the flesh. From the back of her hand a series of gill-like vents formed; there was a brief yellow flash and ejected gas. A bone-like bullet burst from the center of the appendage and struck Obermeyer’s hand splitting his fingers into airborne debris, blowing through his wrist before striking the wall.
There was a clatter as the handset dropped to the ground, not long before its owner did.
Obermeyer could barely let out a scream of pain as Hunter III sprang and pounced on him.
Adelheid saw their lips meet for the briefest instant as if to kiss– before Hunter III’s teeth bit down through the cheeks, the jaws, crushing Obermeyer’s teeth and tongue and– she turned away, her stomach turning over, unable to bear the sight of this violence. Behind her back, Hunter III’s impassioned chewing, tearing and smacking was met with muffled shouting, gurgling, the slamming of Obermeyer’s legs into the ground until life left him, and he could no longer thrash and scream through this horror, having no face, no throat, no life with which to do so.
Hunter III seemed to fill in the void left by him with her own contented moaning.
“I could cry! He’s so tasty! He’s tough but sooo juicy and flavorful!” She exclaimed with delight.
A shaking tail crept out from under her robe and struck the floor with a contented thump.
Long and thick, seemingly reptilian at first but segmented and shelled upon inspection.
That thumping briefly distracted Adelheid, leading her to catch a glimpse of the gore–
“Hurry up!” Adelheid shut her eyes, arms crossed. “You don’t have time to savor it!”
That it used to be a person before it became a piece of meat in Hunter III’s gullet–
–was something Adelheid had pushed firmly out of her thoughts.
“I s’pose not. But it really hit the spot. Thanks for the meal.” Hunter III said.
When Adelheid next made herself turn to look, ever so briefly, she glimpsed fully half of it (the body) gone, a pair of legs in pants smeared with something now all that remained aside from a puddle of red and brown. Hunter III was soaked in blood, it was caked in her hair, around her mouth, on her hood, on her hands. Where half of it (the body…) had gone Adelheid couldn’t say, as despite the shocking amount she ate Hunter III looked as small as usual.
Except the tail, which did not surprise Adelheid but was not an inborn trait of Hunter III.
“Do you have enough mass to transform?” Adelheid asked.
“Yep. And I’ll be gettin’ more. Stand back.” Hunter III said.
Normally her voice was higher pitched, whiny– in that moment it deepened.
Adelheid looked away from the body and focused on Hunter III, who began her ritual.
She reached into her hood pocket and procured one of those disgusting fruits she treasured.
As she brought it to her lips and took the first bite, she was overcome with euphoria.
Doubling over, hips shaking, her whole body quivered; she mashed the fruit into her mouth as if she couldn’t eat it fast enough, couldn’t get enough, like a passion, an obsession. She chewed in clumsy open-mouthed bite, masticating loudly while her eyes seemed to go into a trance. She slipped out of her hood, unveiling her pallid, perfectly white body as her skin began to thrum, as her sinews traced red under her skin as if she was an empty vessel filling with blood. She was a wet white grub of a human whose cocoon soon began to form.
From her back and hips, two wide and round, scar-tissue protrusions burst out of her skin.
She took a deep breath from gills opening on her chest and the air blew out through them.
Her legs thickened, turning muscular, while her chest and shoulders broadened–
Her head disappeared as if a new one had grown over it, long with a vertical slit mouth–
Her hands widened, the fingers tearing apart into steaming, jet black claws–
With a leap and thunderous burst of air Hunter III charged through the doorway.
And in that instant, caught the group of armed men in the hall in a press of teeth and claws.
Vespucio, his whole body shaking, flicked a switch on his communicator.
In retaliation, Norn swept her hand dismissively at him, emitting a psychic shock. An invisible force drove the man to the ground as surely as if Norn had punched him, throwing him on his back with a thud.
He looked up at her from the floor, looked down at his ruined hand, breathing heavy–
“You– you monster– you witch,” He said slowly, struggling to get the words out in his pain and desperation, “You could have– with your skills– why is this happening? Why did you allow this to happen to us–?”
Norn looked down at him, her chest tight, still recovering her breath.
Struggling to remain composed, she lowered the gun she had taken from him and scoffed.
“Allow? You’re falling short of the truth, Vespucio. I did not just allow this to happen.”
She felt a thrill down her spine and a fluttering in her chest as she spoke.
It was not entirely the truth– and yet it was certainly not altogether a lie–
Vespucio’s eyes drew wide. “So many– so many will suffer. So many are suffering–!”
Norn felt a surge of anger. Such sophistry! For this gerontocrat to pretend to care!
And yet, he hadn’t inkling of all of her suffering that led her to this day!
Or the vastness of the grudge that split the Imbrian Empire seven ways!
All the horrors of Katarre– the flight, homelessness, statelessness– the privations of the abyss– the threat of genocide– the terror of Mehmed– the truth of the Omenseers– Konstantin’s foolish fascination– Norn felt as if looking at her own body from outside. In that moment, she stood in another blood-stained image in the vein of these torturous memories. As if she was a third party to her own life– puppeteering herself.
Born to greatness– given unto nothing– exploited and tortured and abused in every way–
This was the only time in her life that she could ever truly say she had control of herself.
“Ordinary people have always suffered! They’ve suffered as much from you and yours as ever!” Norn said. “But there’s one thing about this new era that is truly, wonderfully just, Vespucio. For the first time, men like you will also suffer! Every self-declared man of history will be drawn out and exposed by my hatred and cast out to sea to die. Coming here was worth it just to snap your wretched elitist head and add you to the detritus of this age!”
Before Vespucio could speak again, Norn flicked her hand at him, pushing on his neck.
He may have been able to resist at least a little had he been in any stronger position. But kneeling before her, in incredible pain, already bewildered and bloodied– His head jerked to the side at an unnatural angle, and he fell dead in an ungainly position, his neck shattered and limp. In an instant, he was silent, gone.
Norn raised her hands up to her face. She laughed. She laughed! Passionately; painfully.
Alone, surrounded by corpses, she laughed, and she wept!
She wept all the tears Adelheid couldn’t be allowed to see; and laughed at the pain she felt.
As Norn let herself break, Vespucio’s discarded handset flashed a tiny red light, an omen of further violence.